NXNW: The big screen experience

March 16, 2011 – While South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music and film festival rages on through Saturday in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia celebrated a mini film festival of its own last night when Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “North by Northwest” came alive on the big screen.

The film, which deals with the consequences of mistaken identities, stars Cary Grant, and was hosted by Turner Classic Movie’s own Ben Mankiewicz and film co-star Eva Marie Saint. It was the headline act at the Prince Theater on Broad Street, as part of TCM’s Road to Hollywood series. The annual event is scheduled to visit 10 North American cities in all, and features “North by Northwest” and a handful of other films and its stars, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Birds”,  and “Psycho”.

Standing in line in front of the theater.

The line began forming by 5:30 for a 7:30 showing, and grew quickly around Chestnut Street and onto Broad Street. The festival was free, and seating was limited, which meant approximately 300 or so people were turned away at the door.

The unique crowd of diverse ages kept me entertained while I waited. The man in front of me was jotting down in a notebook things the people around him were talking about, which was interesting, and then he began asking people for their Comcast usernames and passwords so he could sign in to one of the free hotspots with is laptop, which was annoying. The elderly couple in back of me where charming, and looked as if they just stepped off the bus from Iowa. They had a bag of goodies with them, and both were eating dinner in line that consisted of sandwiches and bottled water wrapped in aluminum foil, which made me wonder how far they traveled.

My feet began to hurt from standing for so long (I wore the wrong shoes), and when an usher came out to ask if there were guests from some film club that was let in early, I was tempted to raise my hand. But I resisted realizing that was exactly how Grant’s character got into trouble in the movie.

TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz and Eva Marie Saint address the audience.

As a Hitchcock fan, I’ve seen “North by Northwest” a handful of times, but nothing compares to seeing it on the big screen, and with the seemingly ageless Eva Marie Saint to discuss its finer moments. She spoke about Hitchcock as a director, and how he didn’t direct like others in the sense that he told actors what to do. He simply laid out the scene on storyboards and let the actors take over. Then he’d watch the dailies (film clips) without sound at the end of each day, as if he were watching a silent movie, and that’s how he determined if they were good enough to go to print. According to Saint, Hitchcock did very little editing.

The big screen also added to the drama of the more famous scenes in the movie, such as Grant and Saint climbing Mt. Rushmore, and Grant being chased by a crop duster on a farm in the Midwest. It also added to the excitement that the well-packed theater was wracked with emotion and reacted with spirit at the appropriate moments.

Cary Grant seemed larger than life as the innocent ad executive Roger Thornhill who is chased by Federal Agents across the country in a fight for his life after he is mistaken for a spy, but that may be because I’ve only ever seen his movies on television prior to last night. “North by Northwest” is not my favorite Hitchcock/Grant collaboration — that honor belongs to 1944’s Notorious — but it is very good; it’s even better now that I know a few of the behind the scenes secrets, such as the producers wanted Cyd Charisse in the female role, and Grant wanted Sophia Loren (in every way, according to Mankiewicz), but “Hitch” (as Saint called him) insisted that she play the part.

It’s a bit more difficult to spot Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the movie, a trademark move he pulls in all of his films, but if you don’t blink you’ll spot him at a bus stop right after the opening credits.

Here are two other photos from the event:

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